When you’ve been deceived your entire life and everyone suddenly wants to use you for their own purposes, how do you know who to trust?
Annika thought not knowing her parents was rough, but knowing the truth is even worse. She has always felt out of touch with everyone around her. Since she was a teenager, she’s seen impossible things. When she’s suddenly attacked by shadowy creatures, the truth come out, and it changes her life. It appears Annika has an out-of-this-world destiny, and if that wasn’t crazy enough, she’s beginning to accept the fact she’s an alien.
It helps that she has some friends to see her through. Cas, her best friend, is bitter that in the chaos he lost his birthright to be her magical protector, Jai is crazy and trying to make his death wish a reality, and Mikol is…hers. Her guardian is the only part of her insane new life that makes sense. The feelings growing between them are forbidden. But rules don’t stop Annika from wanting more than his ability to shield her from the darkness. When Annika is with her hot-as-hell bodyguard she knows what it is to really be human.
Can she save a distant planet from a tyrannical ruler and find a way to be with the man she loves?
Content Warning: contains sex scenes and some violence
“Forgive me,” Mikol spoke softly. The sensuality in the way he said the words brought a moan from her lips.
Heat filled her cheeks as she struggled to control her reaction to him. Horrified, she couldn’t meet his eyes. Having him near her was amazing. The strange contentment radiating from Mikol was suddenly euphoria. She never wanted him to leave her again. The weirdness reminded her of hearing a troubled classmate describing getting high when they were freshmen. This sensation was like being high on Mikol.
He moved closer and knelt beside her bed. He was so large and male that he seemed out of place in her pink sanctuary. He tilted her face up so that she gazed into his big brown eyes. Annika bit her lip. Her breathing came out in erratic little pants. She wanted to lean forward and kiss him. He pulled away enough that she realized she was moving toward him unconsciously and stopped.
“The creature who attacked you was an assassin sent to kill you. They know you’re here and they’re strong enough to cross the portals. Your spirit—what makes you Annika, and gives life—was almost consumed.” He paused as his tongue darted out and moistened his lips. He took a deep breath. “We have to go. Your parents understand it’s time to run. You were never destined for this world. Greatness, beyond anything Earth can offer, awaits you.”
Drama much? She blinked several times, waiting for him to crack a smile or for someone to jump out and shout “gotcha”. But he wasn’t kidding. No one could say something so wild and keep a straight face for this long unless they were serious.
“I don’t understand,” she answered, and scrubbed a hand down her face.
He touched her cheek with such tenderness her eyes watered. “You will, in time all will become clear.”
There was incredible comfort in the way his fingers ran down her cheeks. He wiped away the moisture from her eyes with the pads of his thumbs as he cradled her chin.
The soft shushing sound he made reminded her of how someone might comfort a child, but his countenance promised that wasn’t how he saw her. Attraction. The emotion hit her as if someone had thrown it at her. Somehow, she knew he was feeling it and so was she.
“Close your eyes and breathe with me,” he ordered.
She closed her eyes, and he touched her chin. He pressed his index fingers lightly against her temples. They breathed in and out. Her heartbeat synchronized with his. She didn’t question it. Mikol calmed her.
“There are many things you will learn, but for now I need you to trust me. Can you trust me?”
How could she not when his voice was compelling her to? She didn’t like this. Somewhere deep in her rational mind, she knew his calming her was wrong and he was messing with her head.
“Stop,” she pleaded as she opened her eyes to look at him.
He ran the tip of his index finger over her lip. She noticed the tattoo around his eye seemed to glow. “If only I could. Come, there is clothing for you in the bathroom. I know it looks strange, but you must get dressed. Our time is running short.”
Ashlynn Monroe has been dreaming up stories all her life. She started to put them on paper at thirteen, but it wasn’t until she was thirty that she decided to share them with others. She’s a busy mom with a full time job, fantastic friends, and a unique sense of humor. She’s just a regular girl who’s in love with the idea of happily-ever-after. She’s honored to be multi-published by some of the best electronic publishers in the industry. Ashlynn survives each day by dreaming up her next tale of romance.
Jewel’s father, the smuggler king, decides to take his honorary title a step too far when he offers her in trade for an army and a secure port to do his illegal business. She finds herself on the run from her father, and the evil mutant prince who wants to impregnate her with his heir.
Jewel faces a brutal world alone as she attempts her escape. With a fortune in bounty on her head, she soon discovers staying free isn’t as easy as she’d hoped it would be, but her cunning and fighting skill help her evade capture time and again.
Only one bounty hunter, Rion, is man enough to capture her, but she’s also the true mate to his inner wolf. When he makes love with her, the act of taking her virginity bonds him to this woman of worth. Now, keeping his mate alive and safe make Rion and his friends wanted men.
Rion can only think of one way to insure his woman remain safe, she needs a guardian. Rion asks his mentor, Makis, and the other shifter agrees to bond with the woman. Can Jewel find love and happiness with both men?
When the girl looked at him with hunger, Rion’s cock hardened. She was stunning. Most women used surgery to enhance themselves, but not this one. Her soft gray-blue eyes and simple braid of brown hair made her look younger than twenty-one, but he knew he’d found his prey.
Guilt twisted inside of him. To give this beauty to the prince was almost unspeakable, but he wasn’t hired to like the job, just to do it. She did more than make him guilty, though. She bewildered him. The scent of her subtle arousal was on the air. He sensed her genuine attraction. His wolf gave him an insight a human male wouldn’t be privy to. He was pure menace, and women normally looked at him with fear, not lust. She looked away, but he knew she wanted him. He moved into the shadows. When she looked back he saw her confusion. He was very good at blending into the darkness. Her reaction to him had been primal, and the wolf inside of him wanted to howl. She reeked of innocence…which made her someone he’d never touch. There were dire consequences for the Denari if they were foolish enough to bed virgins.
Then he noticed a pair of Bezonian hunters approaching her.
“Fuck!” he swore quietly to himself. What would’ve been exceedingly simple had just become complicated. Now he’d have to fight them for the girl. The shorter of the two hunters had a bent leg and wing, and he could almost smell the malice rolling off the little one. He felt the hunter’s pure hatred directed toward the girl, and curiosity filled him. Bezoni were aggressive beasts. He watched the angry one suddenly launch an attack behind the girl’s back. She arched with agony, and Rion felt his wolf rising, ready to defend what he’d already claimed as his.
Rion’s eyes narrowed as he caught his reflection in a polished tin sign on the wall. His eyes glowed with a green light, indicating his wolf was at the surface. The slightest provocation would induce the change in him now. He forced the animal down, keeping the man in charge of his body.
He was just about to spring forward when she whirled on the Bezoni. He watched her block the taller one’s blow. The other one lunged like he was going to attack and changed directions. The girl easily anticipated this standard tactic and kicked the male’s weak leg, sending him flying.
No one in the tavern tried to help the girl.
Rion watched his prey artfully defending herself, and he felt something for a woman he hadn’t felt in a very long time…respect. He had never seen a woman fight so well—like a warrior would. Her sleek body made his cock ache. But her beautiful violence only fueled the beast’s hunger for her, even as it captivated the man. She was different and more interesting because of it.
Her wound must have pained her, but she kept moving. As graceful as a cat, she dodged the two hunters while inflicting damage. As her lithe body whirled, he admired the ease of her skill. He fought back a growl of approval. Watching fighting or fucking always made the wolf inside of him harder to control. Passion awoke his inner beast, and it was hard to put him back to sleep.
He could see the Bezoni were holding back while using their telepathy. The larger one pulled a laser from his belt. People began running from the building, screaming. The little one kept the girl distracted. It was time to act. Rion had seen enough.
Rion pulled his knives from his belt and stepped in front of the one with the laser. The nasty larger hunter made a squealing sound Rion recognized as mirth from his previous dealings with this unpredictable species. Rion smiled menacingly, knowing the creature could see his fangs. In a split second, he’d severed the bugman’s hand from his body. The Bezonian gave a shrill cry and his friend’s head jerked around. The woman used the distraction to land a blow to the center of the Bezonian hunter’s face, knocking him unconscious. She gave Rion one brief, respectful nod before she darted out the door.
“By the gods’ balls!” he shouted. After only a few steps, he felt the claws of his opponent graze his wide shoulders. “I don’t have time to play with you right now,” he informed the hunter, sending the one-handed creature back with a powerful kick. His adversary flew through the air, hitting the wall—hard. A large oval tin advertising central-world whiskey landed on his enemy’s head, rendering him unconscious. With a single stroke, he could kill the pest, but he avoided dealing death whenever possible. The gods had enough to condemn him with, so the male would live. With both the hunters out cold, he continued his pursuit of the girl. In the distance, he could see peacekeepers running toward the tavern, so he immediately headed in the other direction.
He had no idea where the girl had gone, but if he were her, he’d go to the port. He sheathed his knives quickly and ran in that direction. The last thing he wanted was for the girl to board another ship. He’d had his fill of rock jumping. She’d seen him now and would know he was after her. Capturing her if she escaped would only be that much more of a challenge. He rushed through the crowded streets until he found her in a back alley. She screamed as he snatched her in midstride, throwing her over his shoulder. She writhed and kicked, but he held her legs.
“You!” she shrieked. “Put me down.”
Rion kept his pace at a jog and continued toward the port. All he had to do was get her on his ship.
She pounded his back and he resisted his urge to laugh. Her strength was no match for…agony shot through his shoulder. He growled, the beast demanded freedom, but he maintained his hold.
THE HOT SHIFTER who’d saved her ass back in the tavern held her prisoner. He was taking her toward the port, and she knew he wasn’t trying to help this time. Everything about him screamed hunter, and she realized he was no different than the Bezoni. She was a bounty. Her earlier feelings of lust-turned-camaraderie evaporated. Resentment filled her and she fought him. Her blows didn’t faze him, but then she noticed his injury. She could see he was already healing, but there was enough of a puncture for her to push her finger into his wound and tug.
The shifter dropped her as if she were on fire, and Jewel landed hard but quickly recovered. Terror and outrage put her back on her feet, and she ran off down a narrow opening between two buildings. She stumbled out into the crowd. Behind her, she heard screaming, then growling. Complete panic kept her moving.
She could hear him right behind her. The menacing sound of his panting and growling made the hair on the back of her neck rise. Shaking off her fear, she focused on the gate. If she could just make it, then she had a chance. She’d come too far to let the hunter win.
The sensation of heat was the first thing she felt before pain erupted through her legs. Knocked off balance, her feet came up and out from under her. “Aww,” she cried.
Isser and Sol’s pack is in trouble. Jewel’s newborn cubs are ill and the pack needs money to treat them. Leaving the more experienced wolves to protect the women and children, the two bounty hunters agree to undertake a questionable assignment from known criminal Linus Lilymann. He wants them to find his stolen ruby and he insists he can’t possibly go to the police. Normally, Sol and Isser wouldn’t even consider it, but right now, it looks like the cubs only chance.
The mission turns out to be not what the expected at all. For one thing, Ruby’s a person, not a jewel. And for another, she’s a dangerous tiger shifter who escaped her kidnappers only to spend her life in a convent worshipping a cat goddess. She’s never been out in the world, she’s utterly unprepared to deal with men like Sol and Isser, and what’s worse, her first shift and her first sexual heat will happen on her twenty-fifth birthday. Soon. And only sex will help her hold onto her humanity.
A tiger in heat will make a mate–or a meal–out of her first lover. Sol and Isser might be able to help her, but if they fail, their entire pack will suffer. It’s a difficult decision: protect the pack or protect their new treasure.
Sol gripped the shuttle’s comm and turned it off. They didn’t want any ships to hail them. He set the coordinates in the computer to take them to the planet Atala. “I wish we were closer. Every second counts, and I want to earn this bounty and get back home. Linus Lilymann—huh, he’s such a crook. You know we’re probably looking for stolen, stolen property,” Sol complained.
“I know, but Lilymann has plenty of money. This is important to him if he’s willing to contract professional bounty hunters. He doesn’t get the goods until we get paid.”
“Fair enough. You were the one to get the details. What exactly are we hunting?” Sol asked. His eyebrow rose.
“His ruby was stolen,” Isser replied.
“His ruby? As in singular? One gem?”
“That’s what he said. He said it’s the ruby he’s always wanted, and he needs it back before the full moon. A woman took it. We’re not supposed to take the gem from her. He wants us to bring the woman instead. He said she has it, without a doubt, and just to bring her back to him, alive, and that’s it. He gave me this bit of fabric. It bears her scent. She smells a bit strange, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
Sol took the scrap of pale material and pressed it to his nose. He inhaled sharply.
“You’re right. This scent isn’t quite human. Even the most mutated human wouldn’t smell like this. It’s not like anything I’ve encountered before. It’s almost wolf, but different. Strange.” He sighed and shrugged as he handed the clue back to Isser. “I hate hunting women, even thieves. Makis would never have accepted this job…” Sol paused and rubbed his tired eyes. “If Jewel and her pups die, the pack will never be home again. I doubt Rion and Makis would even survive. Rion might because he has Boon to think about, but Makis wouldn’t have anything if they all three die. If we weren’t on the run, we could take out credit. They’d already have had the benefit of a doctor. Even free from the clan, we are still suffering. I pray to the gods someday we’ll have true safety to live in the old way. Jewel is the glue holding us together. Everything turns to shit when she dies.”
“Don’t…fucking…talk…like…that… Just don’t! Makis is our leader. He’d never leave us by choice.” Isser sounded younger than his years and even a little frightened. The way he said leader could’ve easily been substituted for father.
“You feel it, the way it is for the three of them. Don’t tell me you haven’t woken to a wave of passion in the middle of the night. Occasionally, I’d experience the strong impression of the possessiveness and awe those two have for her. That’s the dream, to love like nothing else matters. It’s why we risked everything to leave the clan. I doubt I’ll ever have what they have, but it’s beautiful. I wouldn’t want to live if I lost a mate and that kind of perfect, forever love.”
Sol heard the clatter of Isser’s seat belt releasing. He turned and noticed his brother’s enraged scowl as the man crouched down in the single pilot compartment next to him. “We can’t think like she’s going to die. We do the job, and we get them what they need. We make it better, got it?”
Sol nodded, but the horror echoing from Isser’s subconscious hit him in waves of agony. They’d all lost family and community once. The idea of losing what they had slammed into his heart with agonizing force.
“At least we won’t have to go through any wormholes. Sit back and relax, Bro. We’re on our way,” Isser muttered. He gave his brother a quick look before he punched the accelerator on the old ship. The stars stretched out into long lines around them as they sped through space in the direction of planet Atala. The money they needed to take care of their pack waited for them.
* * * *
Ruby ached all over. Sleeping on the cold ground wasn’t what she was accustomed to doing. Her life of learning and prayer hadn’t prepared her for being on the run. Since her escape, she’d managed to avoid the men searching for her by staying in the dark woodland. New men, more skilled trackers, had joined her kidnappers. The idea of so many males hunting her was terrifying. She suffered, so ill, her whole body burning, as if it were on fire. The primal wilderness wasn’t helping her hold on to her civilized humanity. The tiger wanted freedom. Ruby missed her warm, safe bed back at the house of worship. Her pussy throbbed, and she glanced up at the sky superstitiously. She’d been warned about the urges. She wanted meat, rare—raw, delicious meat. The desire struck her as odd since she’d grown up on a vegetarian diet.
Her mind wandered to the many ceremonies where the male devotees worshipped in the temple. Ruby remembered singing the hymns with passion as she observed the women riding the hard cocks of their silent lovers. Little arrows of excitement darted through her core as she imagined hairless, purified male bodies naked and chained. They lay in a state of helpless arousal during the full moon.
Her fingers brushed her mound through her tattered robes. She moaned. Pleasuring herself before her consecration was a terrible sin against the goddess, so she stopped and ignored the ache for release. If she didn’t get back to her planet, and the house of worship, she’d die. She’d escaped before they could deliver her, but somewhere on this world lurked the man who’d paid for her kidnapping. She’d heard the monsters talking. They knew her time was running out. Luckily, her change had given her the strength to escape, but now that power had left her. This world didn’t have the red burning moon of her home, but the lack of astronomical markers wasn’t stopping her body from the tormenting effects of her first heat.
Panting, she lay in the cool grass, trying to focus on the sensation of the cold dew instead of how much she craved the end of her virginity. If she were home, she’d be lying naked, awaiting the male worshippers who would unleash the cat inside her. Until today, she’d dreaded the experience, but now she needed sex.
A wave of dizziness hit her. Light-headed, Ruby sat up. The early-dawn light burned strangely bright. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes, and the action caused her to notice her nails. Gasping, she pulled her hand closer to her face. Her eyes widened, and her lip trembled. She squeezed her mouth tightly shut to stop the tremble. Terror gripped her. The bitter taste of bile rose up in her throat. The nasty flavor caused her to suck in a deep breath as she fought to maintain her composure. Her nails had grown into sharp claws, and each of her knuckles had a frightening patch of hair jutting out from her skin.
She wanted to kill prey and eat it. A consecrated youth learned the virtue of a sweet and serene attitude. Now she desired violence as her inner agitation escalated. Her stomach rolled. Hunger had always been a usual part of her daily routine. Showing restraint at all times, included meals, was part of her ritualistic worship practices, but she’d never experienced such a gripping demand for sustenance. Agony curled her into a ball. She took deep breaths through her nose and exhaled deeply out of her mouth. When the torment subsided, Ruby stretched. Sitting in the dirt wasn’t going to fill her belly. A strange urge to hunt made her restless.
She didn’t have the slightest idea about how to stalk prey, and yet her tiger wanted to do it. The beast had always been deep inside her, but this was the first time her inner animal was strong enough to control her. She didn’t like it. The sensation of losing control shook her with terrifying ferocity. Every moment she became more feline than human. Nothing made sense this morning. Her mind filled with images of animals running, but instead of thinking of them as creatures, she thought of them as delicious food. Her breath caught. She battled the impulse to run off into the wilderness and hunt. This foreign woodland taunted her with its majesty. Lost and alone, she wasn’t sure where to go. What remained of her rational thought reminded her she needed to find a way back to her sanctuary. The old mother would know what to do. The other tiger priestesses would help her through this transition.
A noise caused her to sit up. At least two light-footed creatures were running. Instinct changed the way her senses brought information to her brain. Everything hit her mind so much more richly and yet in a truly primal way that left her feeling off-kilter. She tried to stand, but the world spun, and she landed hard on her ass. Ruby moaned, closing her eyes. Cramps filled her stomach. This pain clawed her much worse than her monthly cycle, this fire burned through her—killing her. She closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath.
“Who are you?” The gruff male voice terrified her. Ruby’s eyes opened quickly. She lay too weak to flee. She must have fallen unconscious for a few moments. Her body wouldn’t respond, as it stayed worthless for moving or fighting. This affliction had taken a great toll. Terror grew exponentially as her blurry vision sharpened, and she realized just how large and imposing the male’s body truly appeared. She could smell him. He wasn’t human.
“I am Ruby, devotee of the cat goddess,” she managed to respond. This man wasn’t one of her attackers. They’d been human. This male was like her. Shifter. His warm amber eyes weren’t cruel. His hair was long, black. He wore it tied back in a ponytail. He was handsome. She didn’t have much experience with men, but this one was so unmistakably perfect she was able to register his masculine beauty even in her condition.
“Shit! Damn it, Lilymann is fucking with us. This is the girl,” said the male who’d questioned her. “Do you smell her? I think we’ve been played.” Weakness lingered, and she couldn’t open her eyes, but he wasn’t talking to her.
“You’re right. The scent is different now, but it’s definitely her. She’s—oh gods, no, that spiciness—she’s a tigress,” replied another man. “That’s what smelled off about her scent. She’s never shifted. That’s why we couldn’t tell. Tigers don’t shift until they go into heat. Damn it!”
She managed to open her heavy eyelids. The second man was almost as beautiful as the first man was. His hair was much lighter, and she marveled at the various shades of blond, light brown, and red that glinted in the sunlight. This stranger had hair any woman would envy, but there was nothing feminine about the sculpted masculinity of his face. He was incredible. He was also…different. She’d seen men who wanted to serve, but these men looked ready to dominate. They frightened her, but she also found them fascinating. He glanced at her, and they made eye contact. His eyes were such a deep green they reminded her of the forest. The image of a wolf leaping over a fallen log filled her brain, and she drew in a deep breath. She sighed before the exhaustion became too much, and her eyes closed again of their own accord. Ruby laid her head down in the dirt as she gave up the struggle. The weakness was intolerable, but she knew no remedy except returning home to the goddess.
“We aren’t looking for a gem. She’s the ruby. Oh gods, how were we so stupid as to believe this hunt would be as simple of a matter as stolen property?”
She had no idea what property he referred to, and she didn’t care. She hadn’t taken anything from anyone. Ruby drew in another deep breath, and her brain registered what was bothering her. These men were shifters—wolves. Why wolves would agree to hunt another shifter was a mystery to her. Her curiosity didn’t last long. Pain raced through her abdomen, tearing a cry from her lips. She hurt so badly she curled into a fetal position. She didn’t care what happened to her anymore, because she was dying. No one could hurt this bad and survive. She agonized over the emptiness of life cut too short and unfinished days. She wished for another day—an hour even—just to enjoy existence. As she lost consciousness, the darkness swept away her pain, and she sighed with relief.
Raylin Fabian has loved Captain Sterling Tristam for ten long, lonely years. Unfortunately, he still sees her as the child he rescued so long ago, when her wartorn home world’s barbarity caught up with her once elite family of telepaths.
When Raylin’s injured, her captain makes a decision she can’t accept. She finds herself left behind on a world Tristam thinks is safe. However, there’s no place unreachable enough in the galaxy to escape the captain’s nemesis.
Caught in the crossfire between Tristam and an angry battalion commander’s ire, Raylin has but one avenue of escape — seducing her captain. Can she convince the man she loves it’s all right to love her back?
Laser blasts hit the steel doors ahead of her. The reverberation made her head feel as if it might explode. Skidding to a halt, Raylin Fabian watched the metal bubble and melt where the coin-sized blasts hit. Each of the numerous deadly projectiles missed her by just inches. Thank God that traitorous bastard is such a bad shot! She couldn’t hear her captain beside her anymore. Together they’d turned down the corridor a moment ago. Raylin paused just long enough to look for Captain Sterling Tristam, the man she’d flown with for the last decade, the only person she truly trusted. Tristam wasn’t behind her. Panic rose like bile in her throat, making it hard to breathe. Her heart pounded painfully. Raylin bit her lip, resisting the urge to scream his name.
Cap wouldn’t just leave her. He was — he was the only noble man she’d ever met in
She turned and climbed back down the spindly metal ladder, leaving the crew quarters. The only sound was her feet against the floor as she raced down the long unlit corridor, turning again, almost making it to her destination. The sound of running brought her up short and she paused to look for some place to hide on the enemy craft. Turning again, off course and further from escape, she rushed down another hallway. Seeing the cargo crates, Raylin rushed towards them and managed to wedge her small body in the shadows between them, obscuring her slight form in the dark place between two large containers standing nestled next to the wall. She held her breath. Three men in Galaxy Battalion uniforms ran past her.
Damn it, Cap! I told you this was a trap.
Fuck. A produce transport out of Battalion-controlled space was too good to be true. The second freedom war had been raging a full two years, and this time it was all or nothing. The rebels would die before they agreed to peace after what the Battalion army had done to them last time. They should have known. Food that good never made it to the refugee camps, even if the majority of those refugees were helpless children. Sterling, why do you have to be the one to answer every time someone needs a hero? She should be glad he was, or she’d have been screwed, but right now, the endearing trait was pissing her off.
The long narrow corridor was quiet now. Two turns and she’d be back at the airlock. She’d press a button and Esta would send the shuttle for her. She’d have to endure running ten feet across the flimsy emergency connector, nothing but two inches of plastic between her delicate flesh and the vacuum of space, but she’d do it to get the hell off this ship.
But she couldn’t leave without her Cap. She’d never leave him behind. Tenuously, she worked herself out of the claustrophobia-inducing hiding nook and scanned the path in both directions. Her way was clear. Now to pick a direction, Raylin closed her eyes a moment and focused. Cap. Where are you?
Nothing. She had no sense of where he was — no connection to him. Not a good sign. She should be able to feel him. He needed her, she was sure of that fact. The urgency she felt told her the powers she’d long suppressed were roaring to life. Survival. The Galinian telepathy she’d pushed away for a decade hadn’t left her as she’d hoped. She could feel the crew’s panic on Raven. Cap wasn’t back. He hadn’t left her behind. Equal measures of relief and terror surged through Raylin. Cap! Her mind sent the call without her conscious thought.
Leave me. Get away…
She gasped. His returned thoughts were so weak. Sterling Tristam was a lot of things — privateer, rebel, freedom fighter — but never weak. Help me find you. What happened back there?
Damn it, Cap, I’m not leaving without you. You wouldn’t leave me. I can’t live – live with myself if you die here. Cap, tell me or I’m just going to go looking.
Fuckin’ telepathy! I’m not getting off this ship alive, Raylin. Bartholomew paid Crandel to set us up. I’m so sorry, Star Shine. Get off this bird!
Oh, it was bad. He hadn’t called her Star Shine in years. Sorrow filled her. No! I’m on the cargo deck and I’m climbing to the crew quarters again now.
Go back. Press your emergency beacon. Esta will get you home.
There is no home for me without you, Cap.
She’s going to be yours, the Raven. Esta knows, she’s your ship now. You deserve her more than anybody I know, even Esta. I’m sorry, Ray.
Don’t you fucking die on me, Cap. We’re a team. I’m at the kitchenette. Should I go right or left?
Stubborn little girl, don’t you do this to me. I won’t let you die for me.
We all die someday. You’re dying for your war. I might as well die for you.
I’m in the corridor ahead of you. Take a right, then a left. Keep your head down, kid.
They’re coming back. I killed the one who shot me, but more are coming. I tried to get them off your tail, Star Shine. I wanted you to escape. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to you about Crandel.
We should’ve left him on that rotting rock Alpha-Nine.
She followed his directions carefully, but still didn’t see him.
“I’m here,” Captain Tristam whispered loudly.
Raylin turned and saw him then, pressed up against the water recycling pipes. He was holding his stomach, blood seeping between his fingers.
“Oh, Cap,” she cried.
“Press your beacon, send the distress signal. What’s going on over there? I know you can feel it.”
We’d better be quiet. Here, sorry, it’s bad isn’t it? Crandel radioed over and told Esta we were staying for a drink. She knew right away that wasn’t right. The idiot has no idea how much you mean to that woman. She put her arm around her captain and pressed the button. Esta already knew they were in danger. Raylin had felt the woman’s fear earlier. Cap was heavy. Slowly they made their way down the corridor. They’d be easy to track — the blood drops were a dead giveaway.
Yeah, it’s bad. Esta is amazing.
You set the pace, whatever you can handle, but we need to hurry.
Bossy woman. She could feel his humor. Thanks for coming for me, but damn it, I’ll kill you if you die. I have a responsibility to you, kid.
She hated it when he called her kid. She’d just turned twenty-six. Then the sound of laser blasts distracted her. Ahead she saw Owen and Zolly. They’d come. Relief filled her. Neither of them was great with a firearm, but they’d die for Cap. He just inspired that in people.
Raylin cried out as pain radiated through her side. Her body crumpled and Cap toppled with her. Glancing down, she saw the massive wound. A rather disturbingly large chunk of her body appeared vaporized. She whimpered, unable to help herself. She’d be good to her word. It was time to die for Cap.
Looking back she saw him struggling to hold his body together. Clearly the blast he’d suffered had sliced him up badly. She didn’t realize she was crying until she felt the cold tickle as tears trailed down her face.
With his free hand, he reached out to her and she took her beloved captain’s hand. Above them laser fire blasted, but now it didn’t matter. The damage was done.
“I’m sorry, Star Shine,” Captain Tristam whispered.
“I love you, Sterling, always have, always will. I wish… I wish you’d seen me as a woman.”
“Damn it, you’re going to tell me this now? I’ve worked so hard to ignore how much of a woman you are. You — you’re special, Star Shine, far too good for the likes of me. You deserve someone who’ll be able to give you a soft life with sweet words.”
“I never wanted that. I only wanted you.” His face was becoming blurry.
Everything was growing dark. She closed her eyes.
“Star Shine!” He squeezed her hand but she couldn’t respond. “Raylin!”
* * *
Ten Years Earlier
Galina Free Space
Just Outside Planetary Atmosphere
She’d never been on a real space shuttle before. Raylin felt terrified. She didn’t want to leave Galina. She just wanted to go home, even if that wouldn’t ever be an option again. She was so hungry, so weak.
The dirty man flying the shuttle glanced back and smiled at her. His rotted teeth made his smile look frightening, sending a shiver through her.
Her hands remained tied, but they hadn’t gagged her. She’d seen them gag other girls at the market, so she’d been smart and kept still. She’d known screaming wouldn’t change her parents’ minds. War had taken their choices. The only option the Fabian clan of Galina had left was to sell their older children, hoping to keep the little ones alive.
She was just glad her family hadn’t fallen into cannibalism as so many others had recently. The planet had fought for freedom, and lost. Now things were even worse than they’d been before the war. She’d never experienced peace, and she definitely couldn’t remember having gone to bed with a full stomach. Sixteen years of hunger… The war had broken out when she was only days old.
“By the way, I’m Virge, but you can call me Lord or Master, whatever you’d prefer.”
She didn’t reply to her captor and he didn’t ask for her name. She’d never give it to him. It was the only thing that was still hers. Her parents had sold every other part of her.
Virge grabbed a lock of her hair. The contrast between his filth and her freshly washed hair made her stomach turn. He’d purchased her purity for so little. How could you do this to me, Mother? Why didn’t you find another way, Father?
Her terrified thoughts were her own. She was away from the buzz of voices in her head she was so accustomed to on her home world. The loneliness of her mind was suffocating, void now of telepathic messages from those she loved.
For Galina, the war would never truly end. She could see it in the eyes of their oppressors as they watched children dying without compassion. She knew the bastard who’d purchased her for almost nothing had no good intentions, but anything had to be better than starving to death.
Just as she thought that, he reached over and she managed to pull back enough in the passenger seat so that only her knee was in his grasp.
Worse — she realized there were worse things. The look in his eyes told her he wanted to do things to her, things she wasn’t ready to endure. Shaking, she bit her lip and managed to keep her tears at bay. Whatever happened, she wouldn’t let the asshole see her cry.
“You’re a pretty thing for a half-starved Galinian. You one of them mind readers?”
“I don’t have to be a mind reader to know I want to go home. I’ll fight you if you try to rape me.”
The filthy man laughed. She focused trying to read the echoes of his thoughts.
Been too long… hard… few meals and she’ll feel good… damn she’s sassy. Should’a gagged her.
Raylin kept quiet. She’d been thrown roughly onto a crude platform, and the auctioneer called out a price. Her pedigree as a Fabian didn’t mean a thing to the offworlders who’d come to buy slaves. Slavery wasn’t legal, but here in what was once Free Space there were no more laws.
The Battalion armies had laid ruin to the once beautiful world. Her people worked too hard just holding onto freedom to address the rapidly decaying social systems of Galina. They’d all lost someone, and the enemy wanted to punish them, civilian or not. Soldiers watched the spectacle, and she’d even seen a few of them buying Galinian girls and boys. Weak and sick, those kids didn’t have a chance to fight back, just as she didn’t. In war the biggest losers were the most vulnerable, the young and old. No one would save her.
Raylin held herself stiffly as the small shuttle navigated into the launch deck of a mid-sized cargo transport. She hadn’t seen a ship of this type since she was a little kid. The age of the craft made her exceedingly nervous. Finding herself dragged to space against her will was bad enough without living on a junker. She’d heard enough tales of ships going cold, losing air and the occupants freezing to death as they suffocated. Raylin wasn’t a fan of space travel. Solid Galina ground was where she’d assumed she’d live and die. The loud sounds of the craft landing made her cringe. She was a Fabian telepath. Once upon a time that would’ve really meant something. Now she was worth less than the price of a crate of healthy naturally grown food, at least according to the bill of sale from the auction.
The filthy man pulled her from the shuttle and she gasped as the strange stale
breath of recycled air made her slightly light-headed. The odor of the unnatural
environment didn’t help her queasy stomach settle and she stumbled. She would have
thrown up if she’d eaten anything, but her last meal had been four days ago.
Virge grabbed her by the collar of her shirt and began ripping it.
“No! Don’t!” Raylin screamed, losing the battle to remain calm.
“What the hell is going on, Virge?” The tallest man she’d ever seen stood on a metal walkway above them. Hands on his hips, he glared down at them. He had piercing grey eyes, and his blond hair was crew cut. She noticed a slight scar on his chin. Something about him was frankly mesmerizing. If a man like that had purchased her, she might not be as ready to fight for her honor.
“Fuck off, Cap,” spat her captor.
“This is my ship. I know you’re new to the crew but I approve every passenger before they board.”
“She ain’t a passenger, she’s my woman.” Virge spoke with a hint of pride in his voice.
The man he’d called Cap made a scoffing noise. “Woman? I see a girl. She agreed to come to the Raven with you?”
“I bought her with my own take from the last cargo we reclaimed for Battalion.
Raylin hated them all. They were helping Battalion’s army. Privateers were no better than pirates, and it was because of “reclaimed” food shipments her people were starving.
“Damn it, Virge! I told you I don’t abide by human trafficking. We’re taking her back.”
Her captor pushed her and she fell forward on the metal grates, skinning her palms. He drew a weapon, an old and likely unstable laser. Before he’d fired one shot there was the single ping of his superior’s weapon and Virge fell back, one of his eye sockets sizzling where the fatal shot hit him.
Raylin pulled herself under the shuttle, panting with fear. This violent place wasn’t somewhere she wanted to be. Tears threatened and she choked them back. The sound of boots on the grating made her cringe. She didn’t know what they’d do to her now that her owner was dead.
“Come out,” the deep voice of the handsome man called Cap commanded her.
She stayed in the darkness of her hiding place. “I won’t hurt you, kid. I don’t abide those who hurt women.”
She could hear the sound of running.
“Are you hurt?”
Multiple voices questioned the man who stood next to the shuttle. She listened.
“Virge bought a kid. When I told him I was taking her back he drew on me,” said the one called Cap.
“I never liked that slimeball.”
“A kid? Really? Perv.”
“Where’s the kid?”
“Under the shuttle. She’s probably half crazy considering the state Galina is in right now. God, I hope she doesn’t have the flesh-eater madness. I’ll put the bullet in her myself if she’s a flesh-eater.”
As weak and afraid as she was, her pride wouldn’t allow her to remain silent. “I
am not a savage! No Fabian would eat human flesh.”
“Good. Now come out here.” The man’s voice held a hint of irritation.
“I’m not going to let you rape me.”
“No one here’s going to hurt you, kid. Come out. Now. Come out.”
Raylin cried out as she felt a hand grasp her ankle, dragging her from the dark sanctuary in one swift motion. She tried to scramble away but strong arms held her tightly. “Don’t worry, kid. We’ll take you home.”
The realization of her pending return didn’t fill her with the joy it should’ve.
Raylin lost her battle and a keening sob broke free. A middle-aged woman rushed over and pulled her from the man called Cap’s arms. The woman cradled her lovingly. “The poor thing weighs nothing. We should at least feed her before we take her back there. Don’t cry, sweetie, we’ll get you home.”
Raylin cried harder. “They… they’ll… they’ll just… just sell… me… again,” she managed to choke out around her sobs.
The woman and the man called Cap exchanged a long quiet look. Raylin was too upset to get any hint of their thoughts.
“Turn this bird around, Zolly.” Zolly, a gawking, spindly, dark-haired man, rushed away.
“Wait!” the woman holding her called out. Zolly paused and turned back. “Just wait,” the woman said, handing her off to a kind-looking man.
“Don’t worry, kid, I won’t hurt you. My name is Owen,” he said as he took her from the woman.
The woman pulled the man called Cap, the obvious leader, aside. They spoke intensely for a moment. He was scowling when he stomped away from the kind woman.
“You know anything about a bird like this, kid?” The man addressed her directly.
“Well, neither did Virge. He was a gunner. You ever shoot a gun?”
“Think you’d be able to?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s a good enough answer for me. We’re hiring. You just inherited anything Virge has in his cabin, and whatever money is left in his pockets. His job is yours. If you don’t want it we’ll rock-drop you at the next stop, or if you want we can take you home. What will it be, kid?”
“I don’t have any papers.”
“I know a guy who can change that.”
Raylin thought for a moment. “All I can promise is to try my best to learn.”
“Honest. I like honest. I’ll try my best to teach. You’ll have your papers in a couple of days. Congratulations, today is your eighteenth birthday.”
“You might not want to thank me yet. This won’t be an easy life for a little girl.”
“I’m Galinian; I haven’t ever been a little girl.”
He gave her a sad but amused smile. “Yeah, well just remember I’m not a nursemaid. This is Esta, she’s my right hand, and she’ll show you to your new quarters.”
“Like I said, hold off on the thanks.” He turned and walked away without another word.
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